Dudley Varner operates out of a makeshift office in an abandoned Newport Beach elementary school, but the less-than-opulent surroundings have not gotten in the way of his grand designs for the fledgling Natural History Museum of Orange County.
After three months on the job as the museum's full-time executive director and chief curator, Varner said he envisions creating a world-class facility: a main museum of 100,000 square feet on a site of 10-15 acres; a satellite facility in a local shopping mall that will feature life-size animated dinosaur models, and a natural history center at a county paleontological site or other natural history resource.
"It's very ambitious," Varner said, "and when you look and see us in a 5,000-square-foot old cafeteria and library, you might wonder if it's overly ambitious. But we don't think so."
The first change under Varner's leadership arrived earlier this week in the form of a modest, hand-lettered wooden sign. The seemingly minor event officially marked a change in the facility's name--from the Natural History Museum of Orange County to the Museum of Natural History and Science.
The shift signals Varner's interest in stepping outside the bounds of a traditional natural history museum to include exhibits in the physical sciences and technology. "We're not trying to duplicate any existing museums in Los Angeles or San Diego or San Francisco," he said. "What we're trying to provide is a unique combination."
Varner, 49, holds a doctorate in anthropology with an emphasis in archeology and has taught at universities and conducted field studies. He has worked in the museum profession for 20 years, including founding director of the California State Agricultural Museum in Fresno. Before taking his current post in September, he worked for a year as assistant director of the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington.
The Natural History Foundation of Orange County was formed in 1974, and the current museum site has been in the closed Eastbluff Elementary School since 1985. The organization is run mainly by volunteers, with no public funds.
"They've been functioning at a much higher level than I have ever heard of for a museum without a larger professional staff. They've basically had one office manager," Varner said.
"They held this thing together as volunteers and got it to this stage where they knew they needed a professional museum person to come in," he said. "Now, my job is not to make all of the decisions by any means, but to help provide the options for the board of trustees to select what is really best for the museum and the foundation in the future. I'm looking at new directions and trying to refocus some of the old directions."
One of Varner's main tasks since joining the museum has been to plan for an interim site of about 15,000 square feet. He said he hopes to have a permanent display there that would center on life-size animated dinosaurs created by Dinamation, a San Juan Capistrano-based company whose creations have been a hit in museums all over the world.
"The response is tremendous," Varner said, suggesting that museums with animated dinosaurs can draw more visitors in six weeks than some would attract in an entire year. The dinosaurs would draw attention to the county's museum, the director said, and help speed development of long-term goals.
Dinosaurs are a popular item, especially among children, so Varner is betting that it's more than a passing fancy.
"I would never say that it's only a fad that's going to be short-lived, because I don't think we'll ever know all there is to know about dinosaurs. I think people will always be excited by them," he said. He pointed to a tiny desk in his office used by his 4-year-old son, Heath, that is covered with drawings of dinosaurs and models of the prehistoric beasts. "He can't get enough of dinosaurs, and he's not unusual."
As Varner said he envisions it, the dinosaur exhibit will include real dinosaur fossils and other informational displays.
"This is not intended to be purely entertainment," he said. "The critters are the lead-in. They'll get people there, and the little kids get really excited. But then if you have the backup, you've got a wonderful package."
Varner and the foundation board are considering several locations for the interim site, which could eventually become a permanent satellite facility. A second satellite facility on a site of natural interest is also a possibility. The Pectin Reef paleontological site in south Orange County is one candidate.
The museum is also closing in on selection of the site for the major facility, Varner said. A site near Upper Newport Bay is the current preference, although the museum has also been approached about locating in the planned Bowers museum district in Santa Ana. Varner is confident that once the site is selected, the museum can raise money from private and public sources to build the facility.